The 2021 NFL draft is only a few days away, and everyone seems to more or less know what the Cowboys are going to do with their tenth overall pick. It’s become increasingly likely that, barring another great prospect falling to Dallas, the pick will be a cornerback. But the debate is between Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn.
The general consensus among lead draft experts is that Surtain is the better player, but there’s a significant contingent of people who prefer Horn. Florida tight end Kyle Pitts seems to be in that contingent, recently telling the Cowboys that Horn is the toughest player he faced this past season.
.@gatorsfb's Kyle Pitts met with the #DallasCowboys in a virtual meeting, discussing his unique skill set, how he’ll fit into an offense & which CB he faced last year was his toughest matchup. pic.twitter.com/OPCsMTlMV7— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) April 21, 2021
But which one is the better pick for Dallas? The Cowboys are reportedly picking between the two, and Stephen Jones has seemingly admitted as much. And in this final week, where new rumors pop up every hour on the hour, there’s no way to know which way the Cowboys are leaning.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on @1053thefan on Patrick Surtain II vs. Jaycee Horn: “It’s a great debate. I can assure you there’s been no final decision on that.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 23, 2021
Both players offer a lot of value at the cornerback position in different ways. Surtain has been deemed the consensus top cornerback largely because of how polished he is as a player. The son of former Dolphins and Chiefs cornerback Patrick Surtain, the Alabama cornerback has been groomed for the position his whole life. It’s why he ended up going to Alabama, where Nick Saban helped develop him into one of the best defensive backs in the country.
Surtain offers a ton of technical refinement you just don’t normally see from rookie corners, and could realistically come in and start right from the beginning. There were concerns over his athleticism, but Surtain put those to rest with an unreal Pro Day performance that new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn attended.
Surtain also has a couple of connections to the Cowboys already. Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys’ top corner from last year, played with Surtain at Alabama and the chance to reunite those two on this defense is certainly intriguing. But on top of that, Cowboys cornerbacks coach Al Harris, also a former star corner, is very close with Surtain Sr. and has apparently known Jr. for a while now. It would seem that Harris is Team Surtain.
But Horn isn’t short on connections to this team either. His father, Joe Horn, was a very productive receiver for the Saints back in the day as well; five of his seven seasons playing in New Orleans came with Mike McCarthy as his offensive coordinator. McCarthy is said to still be close with Horn, and that’s played a factor in the team’s interest in Jaycee Horn.
But there’s more than that, too. While McCarthy should have good insight to who Horn is as a person, the team also has a great line of information into Horn the player. His head coach at South Carolina, Will Muschamp, is “best friends” with Quinn according to Bryan Broaddus. Indeed, Quinn and Muschamp were both assistants on Nick Saban’s Dolphins teams in 2005 and 2006 (where, coincidentally, Jason Garrett also coached), and Quinn was also Muschamp’s first defensive coordinator for the Florida Gators. Quinn ended up leaving two years later for the Seahawks defensive coordinator gig, but the two share a bond that undoubtedly has Quinn at least somewhat leaning towards Horn.
But having friends in the right places isn’t all Horn has going for him. He’s a wildly athletic cornerback with the alpha mindset, and he plays that way. Horn is very physical and aggressive in coverage and has sparked a few Richard Sherman comparisons with how much he talks to opposing receivers.
But the issue for some is that Horn relied far too much on the more lenient contact rules in college to hold up receivers. To that end, he reminds me of Michigan State’s Trae Waynes, who was selected 11th overall by the Vikings back in 2015. Waynes impressed teams with his aggressive play and ability to shut down opponents in the Big Ten.
But it took Waynes far too long to adjust to the NFL rules, frequently getting called for pass interference penalties and getting beat when he wasn’t holding. It wasn’t until the 2017 season that Waynes really grew into a more reliable all-around cornerback. That growth allowed Minnesota to pick up his fifth-year option, but they didn’t bother re-signing him after that in an offseason where cornerback was a huge need for them.
Waynes is certainly not the first, and definitely won’t be the last, example of a handsy college corner not translating well to the NFL. But he is the most apt comparison for Horn because of the assertion that Dallas take him tenth overall, one spot earlier than Minnesota took Waynes. Additionally, Minnesota passed on both Marcus Peters and Byron Jones that year to make Waynes the first corner off the board.
Now, maybe Horn isn’t the next Waynes and is more so the next Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib. He certainly has the pedigree to make the adjustments that Waynes failed to make. But this ultimately comes down to a debate between polish and upside, Surtain and Horn.
In Surtain, the Cowboys more or less know what they’re getting: a fundamentally sound cover corner who should thrive in Quinn’s scheme opposite Diggs. Surtain should go on to be named to several Pro Bowls and All Pro teams, but will he become the next Jalen Ramsey? Likely not.
Horn could, though. He’s not necessarily there yet, but he’s displayed both the talent and attitude to get there. But Horn is also likely to have some growing pains, as most rookie corners do, as he adjusts his game to accommodate more strict coverage rules at the NFL level.
If the Cowboys are looking for a sure thing to help complete their rebuilt secondary, Surtain is the obvious choice. If they want to take a bit of a gamble on upside, Horn is the pick. It’s an interesting debate to be had, and only time will tell which prospect becomes the better player. Here’s hoping the Cowboys end up on the right side of that debate either way.